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Editorial comment: Who, really, is security serving?

COMMENT
An Edward Snowden-style bombshell is still possible as Al Jazeera releases more South African spy cables over the weeks ahead. But this week’s preliminary leak was embarrassing for South Africa, rather than posing a genuine threat to national security.

The real risk is that our spooks, who have meddled in domestic politics for more than a decade, will exploit the episode to launch a clampdown or another round of factional intrigue.

The major source of discomfort for the government must be its failure to stop the massive haemorrhaging of classified documents into the public domain. A senior official or IT specialist, apparently with privileged access to records of the old South African Secret Service – our former foreign intelligence arm – appears to be the source.

The documents do turn a slightly disconcerting spotlight on the extremely close relations between South African intelligence and its counterparts in Britain, the United States and, to a lesser extent, Israel, particularly in the counterterrorism field. 

Much of the material released so far has focused on Iran and revolves around Western fears that South African uranium and technology could be used to further its nuclear ambitions.

But the cables tend to be rather elderly – some date from 2002 – and do not really suggest any illegal conduct. Indeed, co-operation on Iran can be justified in terms of South Africa’s international commitments on nuclear proliferation.

The latest revelations focus on the relationship with Israel, an assessment of the al-Qaeda threat and South Africa’s Russian spy-satellite project – all providing quite valuable, but hardly explosive, insights.

Disappointingly, the cables shed no light on the role of the intelligence service in the downfall of former president Thabo Mbeki and the rise of Jacob Zuma, particularly through its covert campaign against the Scorpions.

Whatever the source’s motivation, he or she was clearly not driven to expose the spooks’ lack of respect for the rule of law and democratic process.

State Security Minister David Mahlobo’s announcement that the government will investigate the leaks was to be expected. But there are justified fears that the episode will be used to drive through the “secrecy” Bill, which has been sitting on Zuma’s desk for more than a year and still contains objectionable clauses that make government less transparent and accountable.

Of equal concern is Mahlobo’s mysterious threat to “look further” into social media reports “alleging espionage activities linked to some politicians and a head of [a] chapter 9 institution”.

Misleadingly raised in the context of the spy cables, this was an apparent reference to a scurrilous claim that the Democratic Alliance’s former parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, is being trained in the US as a spy and that her handler is public protector Thuli Madonsela.

The fact that the minister should take such nonsense seriously is a sinister sign. Once again, it suggests the security establishment serves not so much the nation as the ruling party and its leader.

  • This comment piece was originally published as an editorial in the Mail & Guardian.

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.

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Drew Forrest
Drew Forrest has been working as a journalist for 40 years, with stints at Business Day, Mail & Guardian, Times of Swaziland and the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism. He has been a deputy editor, political editor, business editor and labour editor, among other positions. Author of a book on cricket, The Pacemen (Pan Macmillan 2013), he has also edited several non-fiction books. He is the managing partner (editorial) of IJ Hub, a regional training offshoot of amaBhungane.

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